Russell Tillis guilty of 1st-degree murder, faces minimum life sentence

Woman’s dismembered remains found buried in Tillis’ Jacksonville yard in 2016

Russell Tillis on Friday was found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Joni Gunter, whose dismembered remains were found buried in the yard of Tillis’ Southside home nearly five years ago.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Russell Tillis on Friday night was found guilty of kidnapping and killing 30-year-old Joni Gunter, whose dismembered remains were found buried in the yard of Tillis’ Southside home nearly five years ago.

After about five hours of deliberations, the jury also found Tillis, 59, guilty of abuse of a dead body but not guilty of human trafficking.

Tillis, who was outspoken, before and during his trial, showed little emotion as he listened to the verdict.

The jury will return Wednesday for the penalty phase of the trial and recommendation on whether he should be put to death for the crime or spend the rest of his life in prison. He faces a minimum of a mandatory life sentence.

In closing arguments Friday morning, the state and defense attorneys reviewed the evidence, claims and the audio of a jailhouse confession.

“You cannot take a hammer and strike at least five times unless you have thought to kill her,” Assistant State Attorney Alan Mizrahi said during his closing argument. “Joni Gunter cannot cry out for justice anymore but her remains in the defender’s back yard will do it for you.”

Tillis’ lawyer said the evidence and the message contained his jailhouse confession recorded by another inmate wearing a wire shows something very different.

“The state’s witness told you that this case lacks integrity from the moment it began and the State Attorney’s Office can not hide from that,” Charles Fletcher said. “The judge will instruct you on reasonable doubt and it tells you what reasonable doubt isn’t, and if you get back there and don’t have guilt, if you don’t have that feeling of guilt, it must be not guilty.”

UNCUT: Prosecution and defense closing statements

Jacksonville police said they found Joni Gunter's dismembered body buried in the back yard of Russell Tillis' Southside home. (WJXT)

The jury began deliberations about 2 p.m. Two hours later, the jury sent out a question: “In the absence of physical evidence, is an abiding conviction of his guilty enough for a conviction?”

Both the prosecution and Judge Mark Borello said the answer was yes, but the defense argued they should be told a conviction should be based on evidence and witness testimony. The lawyers collaborated to come up with a response and agreed to reiterate a couple of points from the previous jury instructions plus this statement: “Evidence can be in the form of physical evidence, testimonial evidence or circumstantial evidence. Whether the state has met its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is a matter left entirely up to the jury based on the evidence or the lack thereof.”

Deliberations resumed about 4:25 p.m. At 6:15 p.m., Borello called the jury into the courtroom to say dinner was coming and urged them to continue deliberating into the evening.

At about 7:20 p.m., the jury announced it had reached a verdict. It spent over five hours in deliberations.

During three hours of testimony Thursday afternoon, Tillis said he saw Gunter for the first time when she was already dead, claiming his brother, Claude, drove to his house and showed him Gunter’s body in the trunk of his car.

Tillis did not say his brother killed Gunter. But he said that if his brother were arrested for it, he would not testify against him. Tillis’ brother is not charged in this case and the lead detective in the case testified they never had any evidence that pointed to Tillis’ brother.

Tillis also testified he fabricated an elaborate confession that he killed Gunter and buried her on his property. He said that he didn’t kill her and never knew how she died. Tillis said he created the fake story with a fellow Duval County inmate, who had agreed to wear a wire to record the conversation.

“(Sammie) Evans and I cook up a story. First I tell him why I can’t go to the police and give the confession. So once I convince him that, OK, I’m telling him the truth and this is how I know where the body’s buried and this is what’s going on and this the reason why I can’t go to police, and once he understood all that, then he started looking at me a little differently, OK, let me hear your story,” Tillis said. “So I tell him my story.”

Tillis claimed that at the time of the jailhouse confession, he thought he would spend decades in prison for a 2015 attack on police and preferred to be put to death.

“He and I over a course of maybe three or four days, we start fabricating this murder. We were both convinced would provoke the state attorney to seek the death penalty so I didn’t end up confessing to a murder where the state didn’t end up seeking the death penalty and then I’m right back to doing 30 years in prison, I got nothing,” he said.

Tillis testified the inmate was a little skeptical, so he provided a map.

“I knew exactly where the body was buried, and I knew the condition of the body,” Tillis said. “I drew the map. I told him to study it and then throw the original in the toilet, make his own hand copy and told him to allege that I just told him.”

Tillis finished his hours-long testimony by denying he killed Gunter.

During cross-examination, Tillis refused to answer questions pertaining to Gunter’s death.

Prosecutor: “What’s it like to use a saw to cut a woman’s head off?”

Tillis: “I have no answer for that question either.”

Prosecutor: “Did the saw blade wear out when you were cutting her shoulders? Did you have to use multiple blades?”

Tillis: “I believe I just told you I would not answer any questions regarding that subject.”

It was a stark contrast to the jailhouse conversation, which is the centerpiece of the prosecution’s case against Tillis.

“I’m killing her, but you have to cut her up,” Tillis is heard saying on audio played Wednesday in court.

The first day of the trial ended Wednesday with the playing of the jailhouse confession that Tillis now claims he made up and the second day began with a continuation of the recording. Prosecutors played the audio recorded with a hidden microphone inside the Duval County jail where Tillis confesses to killing Gunter. At one point, when Tillis learns his property is being bulldozed, he is heard saying: “They’re fixing to unearth one of them bodies over there and then that one is probably gonna lead to the other two.”

Tillis’ property is also discussed, specifically that it was built up like a fortress with booby traps like razor blades in bushes. The defense said those were not used to keep out police but burglars.

READ: Transcript of jailhouse wire recording (Warning: Contains offensive language)

Before Tillis took the stand Thursday afternoon, the defense continued to argue Tillis made it all up and never killed Gunter. Defense lawyers also challenged Detective Dennis Sullivan, the homicide detective assigned to the case, on the issue of whether there were chains in Tillis’ home. That questioning followed testimony Wednesday from a woman who said Tillis, at one point, chained her to his bed.

Defense: “Is there anything to indicate this chain -- old and heavy -- that it scratched the bed frame?”

Sullivan: “I did not notice that. No sir.”

On Thursday, Sullivan also revealed new information about Gunter, saying she had children and the last documented report of her being alive was in April 2015, when she was served papers about child support for her children.

“Joni to me, in this case, was somebody who I deemed basically a forgotten victim in this,” Sullivan said on the stand.

A forensic anthropologist testified about identifying Gunter’s remains and the medical examiner testified about determining how she died. He said she was killed by blunt impact trauma to the head.

The medical examiner also testified that Gunter’s injuries showed she tried to defend herself against her attacker.

Prosecutors laid out the gruesome details of the case on Wednesday, saying Tillis chained Gunter in his home and sold her in a sex trafficking operation.

As the proceedings began, Tillis began reading a prepared statement but he was cut off by Judge Borello, who asked that the statement be submitted in writing and for Tillis to be quiet as the jury was waiting to be brought in. Tillis replied, “The jury can wait.”

UNCUT: Trial opens with disruption, opening statements

In the prosecution’s opening statement, Assistant State Attorney Alan Mizrahi said Gunter was killed by multiple blows to the head, consistent with wounds made by a hammer. He said that police found multiple rooms of Tillis’ home with blocked-out windows and there were thick iron chains hanging in the garage.

Mizrahi told the jury that Tillis would claim his jailhouse confession was a “made-up drama” to get the death penalty because he was depressed and facing years in prison on another different charge, but that, “this man chillingly and amusingly describes how it’s pretty easy to dispose of a body after killing a person.”

In his opening statement, Defense Attorney Chuck Fletcher said Tillis knew about a body on his property but that he had nothing to do with her murder.

The trial began after years of postponements and delays, many the result of Tillis’ courtroom outbursts and objections to a string of defense lawyers, even efforts to disqualify the judge.

Gunter’s remains were found buried in several different spots in the yard of Tillis’ Jacksonville home in 2016, according to police evidence. Officers and neighbors called it a “house of horrors.”

At the time of the discovery of Gunter’s remains, Tillis was already in jail on unrelated charges.

About the Authors:

Veteran journalist and Emmy Award winning anchor

Corley Peel is a Texas native and Texas Tech graduate who covered big stories in Joplin, Missouri, Tulsa, Oklahoma and Jacksonville, Florida before returning to the Lone Star State. When not reporting, Corley enjoys hot yoga, Tech Football, and finding the best tacos in town.